Beware the spirit of the Wolf Warrior

Posted: July 1, 2020 in Straits Times
Tags: , , , , ,

A bit late posting my latest for the Straits Times, this time digging into the question of nationalism and the problems it causes countries using the lens of the Wolf Warrior mentality in Beijing as the entry point. Still crashing to finish some bigger projects, hoping to have more time for other writing soon!

Beware the spirit of the Wolf Warrior
Summoning the forces of nationalism anywhere in the world invites the risk of a bite-back

Screen Shot 2020-07-01 at 15.18.51

The film Wolf Warrior 2 has managed that special feat of entering the lexicon.

Wolf Warrior has become the byword for a mood in Beijing that sees little reason to stand down before adversaries. Its primary audience is domestic, showing the Chinese public they are living in a strong country built by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But this sort of narrative is also dominant globally, where political leaders are stoking nationalist and nativist fires at home to bolster themselves.

Such narratives rarely stop at borders, however, and usually create friction abroad. This can constrain government options as they seek to please domestic audiences. Nowhere is this clearer than in the current stand-off between New Delhi and Beijing where cool heads are struggling to maintain control.

Wolf Warrior 2’s key message was clearly stamped in its final scene, where against a backdrop of a Chinese passport, words appeared saying: “To citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, do not give up hope. Please remember, behind your back, will be a strong and powerful motherland.”

This film is aimed at a Chinese audience – something that is important to remember when considering what the point of the so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy is. It is not something aimed at the rest of the world, but at Chinese citizens to show them their motherland’s strength.

The specific phrase “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” appears to have been coined in July last year, in a BBC Chinese article that explored a Twitter spat between then charge d’affaires at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Mr Zhao Lijian, and former US national security adviser Susan Rice.

Now a senior spokesman with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zhao at the time ran one of the most prominent and prolific Chinese government official Twitter accounts. He was at the forefront of a growing mood in Beijing that the film seemed to encapsulate – of a China that was no longer hiding and biding its time, in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase, but was rather standing tall and thrusting itself into prominence on the international stage.

The aggressive posture Mr Zhao encapsulated was intended to show that China was no longer being pliant, but was taking the rhetorical fight to the enemy.

Chinese people will often receive a mixed message at home – on the one hand, they see their country getting rich and leaders talking of national rejuvenation, but then abroad they see they are treated as a second-tier power with anger directed at them.

The extraordinary growth at home and hostility abroad do not seem to fit together, and actually undermine the CCP’s messaging to its own people about how well things are going. Stoking nationalist fires helps strengthen the public’s positive feelings towards their government.

This is a global problem. In the United States, President Donald Trump has made a domestic virtue out of attacking allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s spending, decoupling from China, withdrawing the US from international agreements – these are all policy decisions that he has championed to his voter base, heedless of the impact or appeal to allies.

In London, the entire Brexit conversation was predicated on the fact that Europe was a millstone to British ambition. Similar narratives can be found in almost every European capital. Leaders pandering to their political bases have long blamed a distant and abstract Brussels as the source of domestic problems. Yet, in a world of superpower confrontation, the idea of walking away from what could be one of the most powerful alliances on the planet seems absurd.

And in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has harnessed Indian and Hindu nationalism to win resounding election victories. Globally, however, it has brought him condemnation with concerns about human rights of minorities in the country and the troubles in Kashmir.

Stoking these fires can be dangerous after a certain point. By getting people worked up at home about mendacious or evil foreigners, you create a context not only for racism to thrive at home, but also for your citizenry to pick fights for you abroad.

In Kazakhstan, China is having to deal with the fallout. In mid-April, a series of articles emerged on the Chinese Internet that suggested many of China’s neighbours wanted to “return” to China. The implication was that they were all so envious of China’s success that they wanted to renounce their own nationhood to become part of greater China. Produced by a click-bait farm in Xi’an, they appeared to be an attempt to monetise the nationalist mood at home.

When one article referring to Kazakhstan came to the attention of Kazakh netizens, however, it created an uproar, surfacing as it did against a backdrop of growing concern about Chinese influence in their country. The public anger that followed led to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauling China’s ambassador in to give him a dressing down. The ambassador in turn expressed anger at the stories, claiming that the entire event was being stirred up by Western media – all done on Facebook, blocked in China.

In Ladakh, we might now be seeing the apotheosis of this problem. With strong nationalist sentiment stirred up at both ends, China and India are facing off at a moment when the popular sentiments in both countries are being agitated by strongman national leaders against each other.

In this light, an admission of large loss of life in conflict is something that neither side wants to accept without consequences. The public has been brought up on narratives of how strong they are and how weak the other is. There is a danger domestically if this does not fit with what they see. Both sides are constrained in their choices as a result. They have to keep the public happy, yet at the same time are concerned about escalating into a larger conflict.

The danger is in some ways best captured by the experience of Wu Jing, the director and star of the Wolf Warrior movies.

In the wake of the runaway success of the second movie, he became a talking point on Chinese social media. Among the many stories that circulated was the rumour that he was from Hong Kong, and that his wife was an American green card holder and his son had United Kingdom citizenship – somewhat contradictory, given the nationalist tone of his blockbuster. In an echo of the “birther” scandal in America around President Barack Obama’s right to contest the presidency, Wu’s mother had to post on Weibo photos of their Chinese passports. The nationalist fires that his film had fanned ultimately circled back to burn him. This is the danger that such nationalistic narratives can create. Uncontrollable anger at home which limits your options abroad.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

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